JARS v54n4 - Dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden

Dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden
Bob Dunning
Maple Valley, Washington

On June the 9, 2000, the South King County Arboretum Foundation marked a milestone on a four-year project with the dedication of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea Display Garden. The dedication is a significant moment for those of us who have worked so long to make it happen.

In 1996, the future of that portion of the Smith-Mossman Western Azalea collection held by Britt Smith in Kent, Washington, suddenly became doubtful. Drought a year or so earlier had caused Britt's well to run dry. At 80 years of age, Britt found five acres of rhododendrons without irrigation had become more than he wished to manage.

I became aware of the significance of the collection only because his son, Gary, lives in my housing development. My friend, Dan Bailey, and I had a few rhododendrons and were just starting to get involved at the Rhododendron Species Foundation. We were not really aware of the size of the collection, or of the size of the individual plants in the collection. I can remember taking Dan over to see Britt's garden and telling Dan about the situation.

So often, west and by while the world changes for the worse. So often we are helpless to prevent catastrophe after catastrophe. There is great sadness and frustration in that helplessness. There is great joy when something can be done. Dan proposed that we do something to save the Smith-Mossman collection. Knowing the facts might have kept us from attempting. Only four years of step-by-step experience could possibly educate us to the enormity of what we decided to undertake.

We started with nothing but "let's do it!" in the second half of 1996. We had no idea where we were going to put the collection. We had no idea how we were going to move the plants. We did not even know if the plants would be available. It was Britt's hope to sell the property to a rhododendron lover, with the collection intact. Instead, the property was bought overnight by a developer. Inquiries at the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden made it clear that there was not room at that garden for this rather large collection. Dan and I live in the Maple Valley area of the Puget Sound region and had been active in an evening garden club there. Through the club we were aware of the South King County Arboretum, one of the least known public gardens in the world, or even in King County, Washington. Dan and I talked and talked before we finally hit upon this garden as a possibility.

The South King County Arboretum has forty acres, most of it second growth Douglas firs, on the shores of Lake Wilderness. It has existed since 1965, making it almost as old as the Rhododendron Species Foundation. It has, however, had a far different course of development.

When Dan and I made our pitch to the Board of Directors of the South King County Arboretum Foundation there had been little new development in the arboretum for a number of years. Available cash flow was minimal and the display gardens and trails were in decline. Most member activities centered on the annual spring plant sale. Income from the plant sale had accumulated a small cash reserve.

We learned all this as we sat waiting to make our pitch. It was better than I had hoped. They had the physical resources and we had the project they needed to galvanize the organization. Our presentation was very well received. This was the first of many partnerships (and many friends) that we have made over the last few years.

We were lucky. So many circumstances could have prevented the realization of this project. Before we knew that we would receive Britt's plants, we decided to take cuttings of all of them. The RSF provided the facilities and support to allow us to do that. The developer gave us access to the plants on the Britt's old property. Dan and I spent days slogging around in the rain and sticking cuttings.

When the wetland mitigation plan required the removal of the "alien plants" (also known as the Smith-Mossman collection) the developer called us. We assisted the developer in removing all of the various evergreen rhododendrons, deciduous azaleas, hybrid seedlings, named hybrids, and species from Britt's property. The majority of these plants were sold in plant sales. Some are being used to landscape the development. The developer is receiving a tax deduction for the donated plants. We believe that this is far better than the more usual practice of bulldozing plants that are in the way.